As popular dissent reaches unprecedented levels, questions swirl over who may succeed country’s ailing president.
Algiers – When Algeria’s ailing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika cast his ballot from his wheelchair for a fourth consecutive term in office in April 2014, he probably did not expect that an obscure town in the country’s Saharan south would rise up in protest against his energy policy.
Since January 1, the residents of Ain Salah, located about 1,200km south of the capital, Algiers, have been protesting against drilling for shale gas at a nearby site, citing environmental concerns. At one point, thousands of people were occupying Ain Salah’s Soumoud (Arabic for steadfastness) Square as part of the grassroots movement, which bills itself as being “eco-friendly” and “peaceful”. The anti-shale gas battle then spread across other parts of Algeria’s Saharan region.
Recently, having failed to obtain many tangible results, the anti-shale gas movement has weakened and fragmented. Today, only about 50 people remain protesting in Soumoud Square, down from the thousands attending earlier this year. “We are exhausted and under constant pressure from the public authorities. Our movement is also undermined by authorities’ manipulation, which are trying to divide us,” said Hacina Zegzeg, a leading figure of the anti-shale gas movement in Ain Salah.
Despite the wave of protests, the 78-year-old Bouteflika – whose wheelchair has been equipped with a microphone because his voice is so faint – vowed to continue to carry out shale gas exploration, describing it as a “gift from God” in a recent communique.
According to local activists, the state-owned oil and gas company Sonatrach is moving closer to beginning hydraulic fracking, a controversial process involving the high-pressure injection of water and chemicals into rock formations to extract natural gas. “The equipment has been secretly installed near the shale gas wells, managed jointly by the multinational Halliburton and Sonatrach. Foreign experts also arrived at the gas site,” said one activist, who requested to remain anonymous.
Sonatrach did not respond to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment.
We don't want Ain Salah to be remembered as the people who let an environmental disaster happen
As a consequence, anti-fracking protesters have been returning to Soumoud Square over the past few days, according to local sources. “This is a chance to reinvigorate the grassroots movement,” said one activist.
“We will never give up. We want the government to stop the drilling operations and to hold a national and transparent debate over the energy transition in Algeria. We don’t want Ain Salah to be remembered as the people who let an environmental disaster happen,” said Zegzeg.
In the midst of the Ain Salah protests, opposition leaders held an unprecedented public demonstration in February in Algiers, the country’s capital.
Defying an official ban on all demonstrations in Algiers, opposition parties – who do not recognise Bouteflika’s victory in what they describe as a “flawed” presidential election last year – took to the streets of the capital on February 24, marching against the government’s plan to drill for shale gas. (The Algiers demonstration was not linked with the Ain Salah protest movement, which has said it wants to remain nonpolitical.)
Thousands of anti-riot policemen sealed off the city’s avenues in order to prevent the march. In one surreal scene, Bouteflika’s main opponents, wearing suits and ties, remained smiling even as they were being manhandled by security forces.
The demonstration was “a step in the long process of reorganisation of the Algerian opposition after years of divisions and chaos. Coordination between opposition parties has improved over the past few months, and the protest organised in February in Algiers shows the progress achieved so far, as well as its limits,” Riccardo Fabiani, a senior North Africa analyst at Eurasia Group, told Al Jazeera.
“For the first time, several actors of the Algerian politics have gathered together, regardless [of] their ideological differences,” said Atmane Mazouz, a spokesperson for opposition party Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD).
Following the presidential election, the boycotters and Ali Benflis, a former general secretary of the ruling National Front of Liberation (FLN), met last June to found a broad opposition bloc, including groups whose ideologies range from Islamist to liberal.
The members of what was named the National Coordination for Freedom and Democratic Transition (CNFDT) share an opposition to corruption, the status quo and what they term the “vacuum of power” caused by Bouteflika’s fragile health.
Given the difficulties the CNFDT has faced in organising meetings over the past year, public demonstrations are among the best ways to express and share their opinions, said members of the group. “[Those in] power have prevented us from meeting many times over the past months. We have no other choice but to do politics in the streets,” Sofiane Djilali, president of Jeel Jadid (Arabic for New Generation), told Al Jazeera.
MPs with the ruling FLN party declined Al Jazeera’s requests for comment on the matter.
But the opposition’s room to manoeuvre remains limited because the government is not likely to let an articulate and peaceful alternative emerge, experts say. “The public authority do not fear the Coordination itself; they fear that a true political alternative can come out of the Coordination. That is why restrictions on freedom of assembly and association still exist in Algeria,” explained Louisa Dris Aït Hamadouche, a political science professor at the University of Algiers.
In the past, police used violence to break up nearly all demonstrations in Algeria. Now, the Bouteflika administration tolerates limited protests without dispersing them – but Algiers remains an exception. “Algiers is the nerve centre of the country; that is why the regime does not allow any political demonstration in the capital. However, it tolerates sporadic and limited grassroots movements, outside Algiers,” Hamadouche added.
In the aftermath of the Arab Spring uprisings that toppled the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya in 2011, experts like Fabiani say that Bouteflika’s inner circle is afraid of a similar uprising in Algeria that could threaten the government’s stability.
“As things currently stand, the opposition cannot challenge the regime, nor a popular movement confined to the south and to the resistance against shale exploitation can,” Fabiani said.
However, he added that with the recent plunge in global oil prices, the Ain Salah movement “is a threat to the long-term survival of the regime. They need shale resources to maintain the current export levels in the long term and continue to buy social peace by recycling hydrocarbon revenues through social spending and investment”.
Similarly, Hamadouche described Ain Salah as “a source of preoccupation that the public authorities can manage. But if the social protest intensifies and the oil prices keep falling, the power will need to discuss with the opposition”.